everything grows with love

Stories about My Experiences with Writers & Illustrators Who Bring Light into the World…by Bonnie Ingber Verburg

The Man in the Arena: About Reviews

Perhaps because ALA Midwinter and the Caldecott/Newbery Medals will be announced this month, I have had an unusual flurry of emails about reviews and reviewers lately. I believe most editors are taught, as I was early on, to keep our lips zipped and to never respond to the slings and arrows of outrageous misunderstandings that appear in the reviews of our books. I worked with writer Cynthia Rylant for more than a decade, and at the time she did not read her reviews. She told me they didn’t help her writing, and she asked me not to send them to her. This was not arrogance on her part, and she was a very sensitive and careful writer. The reviews did not help her work, and when she began painting and illustrating some of the picture books herself, such as her splendid Dog Heaven, it was not helpful when, for example, an elementary school teacher had her entire class write individual letters to Cyndi asking her to please stop illustrating her books. The letters somehow got to her–I believe they had tracked down her address and sent them directly, because back then I had an assistant, and we went through the letters and would have filtered out anything mean spirited and hurtful. At any rate, as the years went on, I found that reading reviews became less and less meaningful for me, as well. I had a meeting with Jean Feiwel, who hired me to work at Scholastic, and I asked for her permission to stop reading the journals. In addition to taking up too much of my time, I didn’t think they helped my work, either. Would it be acceptable if I only read the reviews of the books I was publishing, rather than entire journals? She took it lightly and laughed. Then she told me that so many people at our company were glued to those journals that she didn’t think the editorial group would be losing anything if I wasn’t staying on top of them. And that gave me permission to drop all my subscriptions. Although I read every review I can find of the books I publish, I have not read a review journal in at least ten years, probably longer. Reading them doesn’t improve my work, it just makes me anxious–in an unnecessary way. And I don’t think it’s arrogance on my part, either, because I have a very, very heavy workload these days and almost no help. I’m told this is the case with most editors in book publishing now. It has been years since I’ve had a full-time assistant, and that means I do all the FedXing and photocopying and mailing myself along with all the other things an assistant used to do–so the end result is I publish fewer books and also have far more difficulty staying on top of the ones I’m doing. Again, I am told this is a result of our economic times, and as Arnold Adoff once remarked, “New York publishing is filled with empty offices.” I have enormous gratitude that unlike so much of the U.S., I am still able to do what I love and still get a paycheck, at least for now. Reading review journals isn’t high on the priority list.

The larger, and more painful issue about book reviews is how difficult it is when a reviewer misses the point of the book. I am finding this to be increasingly true, not only for the books I publish but for the books published by friends and colleagues where reviews are passed along to me, and I am often astonished at the lack of perception and education on the part of the reviewer. All of us who have been around for a while can talk about stacks of reviews we vividly remember that were insulting, rude, trivial, and completely missed the boat. In retrospect, when a book has become enormously popular and loved over many years, it can even be fun and funny to go back to those reviews that absolutely trashed the book when it was initially published. The first review of David Shannon’s beloved bestseller A Bad Case of Stripes warned readers not to order the book because it was psychedelic and would give children nightmares. Having published 29 of Dav Pilkey’s books, including The Adventures of Captain Underpants and The Dumb Bunnies, you can only imagine the book banning incidents across the country as well as the punishment individual children have had to endure at the hands of teachers who strongly dislike those books.  With regard to reviews, the sharp, dire criticisms expressed often fade into the mist, although–as it is with most writers and illustrators–we do tend to remember the nasty ones, don’t we?

I was profoundly affected by the two TED talks given by Texas researcher Brene Brown about human connection, vulnerability, and shame. In her second talk (available on YouTube), she quotes Teddy Roosevelt’s famous speech that has come to be called “The Man in the Arena.” It is an excerpt from a speech given in 1910 in Paris, and this past season I emailed it to all the writers and illustrators on my list who had books coming out in the fall. It explains, better than I can, my attitude about critics and reviewers, and what I hope writers and illustrators will feel about their own work and its inherent value–which is not diminished by what people say. “Do people understand how much time and work goes into making these books?” a very seasoned writer/illustrator asked me at lunch last week. “Do they understand how many decisions we make, and how much thought we put into everything we do?” This particular person has been creating bestselling, award-winning books for decades, yet it’s rare that a book comes out that does not get completely misread by somebody in a very public way. And that’s true about everyone I publish–and has been the truth these past three decades. I’m not forgetting the critics and reviewers and bloggers who enthusiastically do understand the beauty of a book or it’s enormous contribution to the world of children’s literature. Those people and their good spirit far outweigh the lone librarian off in Connecticut somewhere who misses the point so completely you think she could only be getting review assignments because her sister works at one of the journals, right? We’ve all had a review from that misguided soul, wherever he or she is located.

Anyway, here is “The Man in the Arena” by Theodore Roosevelt, an excerpt from the speech “Citizenship in a Republic,” delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France, on 23 April, 1910:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly….

Thinking about this makes me want to thank some of the great supporters of the writers and illustrators I’ve published: Ginny Moore Kruse, K.T. Horning, Michael Cart, Rudine Sims Bishop, Ron Jobe, Amy Kalman…. It’s a long list, but the encouragement has made all the difference in the lives and careers of so many people. You know who you are. Thank you, from all of us.

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